The Quest for the Unknown in the Familiar: Insights

Having now returned from my vacation and my exploration quest, I would like to offer some insights – to you and myself. This year vacation was a little unusual. I went back home and tried looking at it with fresh eyes, instead of going to some new and yet unfamiliar place. It was a conscious, purposeful decision, a quest even: to try and find the new and the unknown in a familiar environment. Turn the ‘visit home’ into a travel journey, an exploration. Now that I`m back, here are my key insights from this experience, as promised.

image from pexels

First, it`s difficult. Think about it – what is the reason you want to take a trip, to travel? Of course, everyone has their own reasons, but I feel that in most cases and on some fundamental level we want to travel because we long for something new. Needless to say, I refer to voluntary travel only. A new place, new culture, new people, new situations, new environment, new food, new languages, new architecture or new landscapes… Whatever it may be, regardless of the price tag and the exact execution, the keyword here is NEW. 

To see if that`s true also for you, try the following thought experiment: imagine you have a 2-weeks vacation available to you along with a certain amount of money dedicated to it. Now, you have to decide how to spend these two weeks – stay at home and simply ‘do nothing’ or go on a trip somewhere. Which option would make you feel best once that vacation is over? Why? 

If you opted for the trip and your reasons for it contained the word ‘new’ (like, to change the scene and get new experiences), what can be considered as new for you? Something you have not yet experienced or something you did not know. In short – the unknown. If you go on a journey someplace other than your familiar environment, somewhere you have never been before, it is basically a given that you will find that NEW, the unknown. You will not have to look for it, it will be all around you. 

The situation is completely different when you travel in a familiar environment. For me, taking a trip back home from my current place where I live has always been more like a visit to see family, friends and do some medical check-up. Not really an explorer`s journey! This time, therefore, I had to make an effort to turn it at least partly into a traveller`s trip. For example, I booked a tour with a local guide to walk around the city I grew up in. That turned out to be an excellent adventure, the guide did a spectacular job and managed to show how much unknown there is in what I consider to be familiar. However, it was hidden from me. 

Even if you look, it doesn`t mean you see. Moreover, you almost certainly do not see all the layers of what there is to see. Strangely enough, the reason for this is not that you lack knowledge, but rather that you are certain you already know. It has become familiar and you have stopped asking questions, wondering, looking and seeing. The more you feel you know something, the more difficult it is to recognize anything new about it. So it takes a conscious, purposeful effort. But it is really eye-opening.

Second, it`s humbling. Once you take a walk along the entirely familiar streets of your home town and realise how much there is you didn`t know about them, about the place you call your ‘own’ (as in ‘my home’), it causes a small emotional storm in you. How could I have not known this? I’ve lived here all my life! This piece of information or that detail of a building and its story is so obvious, how could I have missed that? 

Exhilarated fascination gets mixed with stunned shock at the unflattering thought of how superficial my knowledge about ‘my home’ really is. Realising how little I know about something that should be most familiar to me is, to say the least, humbling

Although this feeling may be unpleasant, it is useful. It opens your mind to the possibility of the unknown even in the familiar. In other words, you get over your illusion of knowing everything worth knowing about something you are familiar with, accept the reality of your and everyone else`s limitless ignorance, and allow yourself to ask questions and see the familiar in a new light. 

This humbling awareness is also liberating. Unlike what many of us were taught at school, not knowing the right answer isn`t the real problem, but rather it`s thinking that you already know all the right answers.            

Third, it can be self-transforming. This one is not guaranteed, it can only happen if you allow it and, by extension, if you want it. Self-transformation is not an easy thing, it can take you places you didn`t even know existed, perhaps containing some painful or sad recognitions. Not everyone is ready (or willing) for that and, therefore, self-transformation remains a possibility until it is actively and courageously manifested. 

What do I mean by this? In short, it`s a turning point in a domino-effect-like process inside your mind. You start with making a deliberate effort to find the unknown in the familiar. Like a new historical/cultural context that explains something about your city that you took for granted before. It opens your eyes and your mind to the reality of how limited your knowledge of the familiar really is. You pay more attention to what your family and friends are saying when you chat with them, doing your best to understand what they mean and why. You start pondering more generally how much you actually know about things, especially those about which you no longer expected to learn anything new. This realisation alone can become the beginning of a self-transformation journey. If you want to take that trip.

The effort you made to find the unknown in the familiar and the success of that quest along with the unassuming attitude to your own competence acquired along the way, all act as pieces of a domino falling onto each other, producing a chain reaction that leads to greater self-knowledge. If you stick to it, you may end up with a broader and deeper awareness of that which you thought was already entirely familiar to you – your own self. 

keep exploring!        

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